Rabih El-Khoury on the challenges and triumphs of Arab film

Much of Rabih El-Khoury’s working life has been dedicated to the promotion of Arab cinema. (Supplied)
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Updated 06 October 2020

Rabih El-Khoury on the challenges and triumphs of Arab film

  • Sudanese and Saudi cinema are blossoming

LONDON: When Rabih El-Khoury first visited Berlin for its international film festival in 2007, he was struck by the similarity of the German capital’s Wall, which used to separate East from West, and the Green Line that demarcated his hometown of Beirut during the Lebanese Civil War. That similarity has informed his perspective on Berlin — where he has now lived for six years —ever since.

El-Khoury works as diversity manager for Deutsches Filminstitut & Filmmuseum Frankfurt (DFF) and is curator of Alfilm, the city’s Arab Film Festival. This year he has also curated the UK’s 2020 SAFAR film festival, organized by the Arab British Centre, bringing his extensive experience of covering Arab cinema to the event.

He appreciates Berlin for its “openness and multiculturalism,” while conceding that “it has its fair share of racism and prejudice, such as you would find anywhere else.” But, as he told Arab News, it was Beirut that “made me who I am today.”




Rabih El-Khoury works as diversity manager for Deutsches Filminstitut & Filmmuseum Frankfurt (DFF) and is curator of Alfilm, the city’s Arab Film Festival. (Supplied)

A few weeks ago he returned to the Lebanese capital with a sense of dread to make contact with family and friends in the aftermath of the devastating port explosion and to see the results for himself.

What he found, alongside the obvious blast damage, was a general loss of hope among the people. This, he said, “was much more heartbreaking for me than the physical devastation.”

“People have very little confidence in the future so long as the political elites stay in power. They cannot even retrieve their money from the banks. Basically, leaving is on everyone’s minds, but it is very difficult to leave without money.  The people have not only lost relatives and homes — their dreams have also been stolen,” he said.




Rabih El-Khoury with Filmmaker Vatch Boulghourjian and Score Composer Cynthia Zaven of Tramontane at Alfilm Berlin. (Supplied)

He added that a scene from 2014’s “The Valley,” by Lebanese director Ghassan Salhab, came to mind as he surveyed the ruins of his city because it contained a reference to the possibility that “Beirut may disappear.”

Another painful aspect of his return to his home city was the fact that the renowned Metropolis Art House Cinema — on of the few in the region that showed films that did not make it onto commercial screens — closed its doors in January due to a business dispute.

El-Khoury joined the Metropolis as administrator when it opened in 2006 and eventually became managing director. 

“There is no cinema at the moment and the team has been shattered by the repercussions of the blast and the political situation,” he said. “It is very difficult for them to continue but they have a fantastic spirit and a director who is very keen to push things forward and make sure that culture becomes available again to everyone.”




A screengrab from “In the Last Days of the City.” (Supplied)

DFF is raising money to that end, El-Khoury said, as well as for filmmakers in Beirut “who have lost so much.”

Much of El-Khoury’s working life has been dedicated to the promotion of Arab cinema — he has organized more than 20 Arab film weeks around the world. And despite the current situation, he sees many promising signs for the industry in the MENA region.

“Sudanese and Saudi Arabian cinema are blossoming. There are so many emerging talents, and filmmakers such as Amjad Abu Alala and Suhaib Gasmelbari in Sudan and Shahad Ameen and Abdulmohsen Aldhabaan in Saudi Arabia offering broader subjects,” he said. “With emerging countries, you are seeing completely different things compared to countries such as Egypt with a longer history and experience of film.




A screengrab from “Tramontane.” (Supplied)

“We cannot yet talk about an Arab film industry as such, but we are advancing in the right direction,” he continued. “We see there is support for filmmakers and producers to come up with new and exciting projects, but funding — especially state funding — will be very tricky over the next few years across the world due to the pandemic.”

He expressed his disappointment at the apparent cessation of the Dubai Film Festival.

“It’s a real loss, not just for the UAE, but for Arab film generally, because so much was achieved. It was a fantastic initiative and many people were discovered during the festival. The problem with the Gulf, in my view, is that so many initiatives are launched but not maintained,” he said.

But overall he maintains a positive outlook: “I am looking forward to seeing what will emerge and how people reflect on their societies,” he concluded.


A Jordanian holistic snacks range sweetens a healthy lifestyle

Updated 23 min 4 sec ago

A Jordanian holistic snacks range sweetens a healthy lifestyle

  • Karma Bdeir’s snacks company sprang from her desire to satisfy her own sweet tooth in a healthier way
  • The MedShed provides holistic alternatives in a region where obesity and diabetes have become prevalent

AMMAN: When discussing healthy eating patterns and holistic wellbeing, the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) is not the first region that comes to mind. Now young Arab entrepreneurs are starting to change that. Karma Bdeir, a Jordanian-Syrian who grew up in Saudi Arabia, is one of them.

Bdeir launched The MedShed five years ago with the aim of reintroducing healthy eating to the region under the theme “mind, body and soul.”

“There has been some major development over the past three years in the MENA region in consumer habits and there is still room to grow,” said Bdeir. “It’s so refreshing to see so many new healthy brands arising in the region and more awareness around healthier alternatives.”

Based in Amman, Bdeir’s healthy snacks company sprang from her own desire to satisfy her sweet tooth in a healthier way, at a time when there were few healthy options available.

Initially it started off as a hobby while she worked in interior architecture. Shortly after, she created a food and health blog, and received a certification in Holistic Nutrition from the Institute for Integrative Nutrition in New York.

“I have always loved health and nutrition, and found myself immersed in learning about the holistic wellness industry,” she said. “The MedShed was born out of my own relationship with food and body because I had a lot of misconceptions — I focused way too much on being too strict with eating healthy and being perfect about it.”

One of her courses highlighted the differences between primary and secondary food, and what she calls a “game changer” for her. “Secondary food is the food that you eat that pertains to you as an individual and to your lifestyle,” she said. “Whereas primary food has nothing to do with food — it’s about relationships, productivity, physical activity and spirituality. When I started looking at it through that lens, I saw the missing link. Health goes way beyond food.”

She started focusing more on internal healing, feeding herself through primary food and balancing the scales.

Based in Amman, Bdeir’s healthy snacks company sprang from her own desire to satisfy her sweet tooth in a healthier way, at a time when there were few healthy options available. (Supplied)

“My mother inspired me to look at things through a holistic lens.” Bdeir said. “Pills are not the answer. You need to heal from within, find out what is unbalanced in yourself and let the symptoms be your guide. It’s all about healing yourself from the inside out.”

When she launched her snack line from home in May 2015, she was the first to successfully introduce healthy sweets and snacks to Jordan. And when Amman opened its first juice shop, Seed, at around the same time, she was able to start selling her products, which also began appearing at local shops and gyms, before moving into supermarkets. “I was simultaneously doing health coaching and testing out my product range,” Bdeir said. “It took two years to develop the recipe for my cookies. I did a lot of trial and error, market research and feedback.”

After refining her products, she went on to launch her bakery line, followed by ice cream last year. Now she plans to expand into the Gulf, starting with the UAE and Saudi Arabia. “The pandemic delayed my plans to launch, but I’m pushing it to May 2021 for Dubai and 2022 for Saudi Arabia and the rest of the region,” she said. “I think the brand has the opportunity to flourish in the Gulf, because I’ve done pop-ups in Saudi Arabia and the UAE and the response was great.”

She describes her products as the perfect healthy yet indulgent snacks — made from dates, nuts, coconuts and oats, as well as date molasses, almond flour and coconut sugar, the snacks contain a good balance of healthy fats, fiber and protein, which provide long-term sustained energy release.

“I want to help promote the idea that if you have a sweet tooth, it’s a pleasure and it’s okay,” Bdeir said. “It’s in our culture to eat dates as well, so it’s local goodness. I’ve always loved an almond-stuffed date and I wanted to create something more exciting from the same ingredients.”

Now Bdeir is increasing her range from 16 to 20 snack products in two different serving sizes, adding to her 15 baked goods, which include cakes, donuts and ice cream sandwiches. She hopes this will provide another stepping stone to change in a region where obesity and diabetes have become prevalent.

“You still have people going on unhealthy diets,” she said. “I’m really against the diet culture and pre-calculated meal plans. It can be a starting point for newbies, but you have to reach that place of intuitive eating, where it’s 80 percent healthy and 20 percent indulgence. After that, you just live your life.”

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This report is being published by Arab News as a partner of the Middle East Exchange, which was launched by the Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum Global Initiatives to reflect the vision of the UAE prime minister and ruler of Dubai to explore the possibility of changing the status of the Arab region.